Bryce Harper scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth last night, coming in from third on Anthony Rendon’s single down the left field line.
He touched the plate with the Nationals’ third run of the night, giving them their ninth straight win, fourth walk-off in five games and sixth one-run victory during this winning streak.
All good stuff. But what Matt Williams liked most about what Harper did last night wasn’t the leadoff single in the ninth to set up the game-winning run. It was the 21-year-old’s approach throughout the course of the night.
All four balls that Harper put in play last night were hit up the middle. Three were for hits - two ground balls up the middle and the line drive single ripped to center in the ninth. And that approach pleased the Nats’ manager greatly.
“He didn’t get a whole lot of hits tonight,” Williams said, perhaps unaware that Harper’s first at-bat of the night, which was originally scored a fielder’s choice on second baseman Aaron Hill, was later changed to a hit. “He got a couple. But he hit the ball back through the middle tonight, which is really important for him. Aaron made a great diving play on him. A couple of them, actually. But if he stays through the middle like that, he’s going to get a lot of hits, and I feel if he trusts himself to do that, the home runs will come. They will come.
“They’ll come on hanging breaking balls and changeups up in the zone, if he can stay middle of the diamond. And he’s working hard on that. So I’m proud of his approach tonight.”
Harper has, at times, pulled off the baseball since his return from a torn ligament in his right thumb. He’s been searching for his timing, which is no easy task when you miss more than two months of the season due to injury. And the process of finding that timing hasn’t been easy, leading to a number of swings where he’s pulled his front side out early, leaving him susceptible to pitches away.
But Williams feels that if Harper can stay in there and focus on taking the ball to center field, he’ll have more success. And Harper agrees.
“I think I was a little more patient tonight,” Harper said. “I thought being able to go up there and hit some pitches that (Trevor) Cahill was throwing to me. I felt pretty good. I’ve been battling every single day. I’ve been trying to come in here and work my tail off and trying to get that feel of where I want to be. The next month and a half hopefully I can take off and help this team win some more games.
“It’s one of those things where you take off all that time and trying to find something that works. I’ve switched so many times my stance, for my hand for my knee, so many things. To be able to go in there every single day and feel good with my swing where it’s at right now and not change anything and stay with everything I’ve been doing, it feels really good.”
Since his return from the disabled list, Harper is hitting .247/.341/.367, but over the last two weeks, he’s seemed to get back on track a bit. In his last 14 games, Harper is hitting .308/.383/.481 with three homers. He’s taking his walks, and seems to feel that he’s getting closer to where he wants to be.